Democracy at the brink?

Daily Times 26th September, 2010

Democracy is a joint exercise of different state institutions and the political class with an emphasis on constitutionalism, the rule of law and respect for democratic principles. If one institution develops an aura of self-righteousness and adopts a unilateral approach of setting everything right, the political process will be stifled

Democracy is a delicate system of governance that can easily be destroyed if its spirit is violated and competing political players are strongly motivated by partisan interests, immediate gains or personal ego, or if they engage in a self-serving interpretation of democratic principles and the constitution.

Democracy calls for institutional autonomy and balance. Different state institutions need to function within their defined constitutional and legal parameters. They need to respect each other’s autonomous status and no state institution should endeavour to overwhelm another institution.

Out of the major state institutions, parliament has an edge over other institutions because of its representative character and its position as the supreme legislative body. However, it exercises power within the limits set out by the constitution and the laws it frames.

Such a democratic system faces challenges from two major sources. First, if an institution of the state stretches its domain of authority at the expense of other institutions or if one institution attempts to overwhelm other institutions. Second, a fragmented and divided political class whose commitment to democracy and constitutionalism is nominal and self-serving, i.e. as long as it serves partisan interests. Democracy cannot become viable if the major players are prepared to adopt or encourage non-democratic and unconstitutional methods to pull down the elected government of their adversaries.

In the past, the military dominated other institutions of the state. Four military governments engaged in constitutional and political engineering to hold on to power and advance their professional and corporate interests. This stifled the democratic process and undermined the autonomous growth of civilian institutions and processes.

Pakistan returned to democracy for the fourth time in March 2008 when elected governments were installed at the federal and provincial levels after the February 2008 general elections. Thirty months later, even an optimist finds it difficult to suggest that democracy has become sustainable. Democracy is under strong pressure from the superior judiciary in the wake of a possible executive-judiciary confrontation, sections of the political class that want to get rid of the government by all possible means, and the government’s own poor performance.

All sections of the political class, including the leaders in power, are more enthusiastic about imposing the strictest standards of morality, accountability and democracy on each other without bothering to consider if their individual disposition conforms to the desired criteria.

Most opposition leaders want the Supreme Court (SC) to knock out President Asif Ali Zardari or the PPP-led federal government either directly or by asking the army to send tanks and troops to do this, because they think that the federal government cannot be removed through parliament. They have the mistaken notion of the judiciary and the army fulfilling their partisan agenda.

However, parliamentarians and other leaders do not want anybody to raise any issue about their overall performance or their financial assets. The recent publication of a comparative study of their assets by a non-governmental organisation, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), has perturbed most parliamentarians irrespective of party affiliations. They have described this as a conspiracy to malign them and democracy. The data used for the study is taken from the annual statements of assets that parliamentarians submit to the election commission. This information is available in the public domain. Still, they do not want anyone to analyse it and release their findings to the media.

An over-active judiciary may facilitate the opposition’s objective of keeping the government under pressure or its removal altogether. However, the political class is unable to realise the long-term implications of this for the future of democracy and the political leaders and parties.

Past experience suggests that the removal of governments by non-elected institutions like the military did not help democracy and accountability of the ruler; nor did it improve governance. It placed restrictions on the role of political leaders except when they agreed to be co-opted by the ruling generals. Now, another non-elected institution, the judiciary, is mounting pressure, which, if not handled carefully, can lead to a confrontation among the state institutions, causing acute political instability.

The threat of confrontation between the PPP-led federal government and the superior judiciary is going to be extremely destabilising and will be detrimental to the future of democracy. The major opposition parties are expected to support the SC in this confrontation. Unlike November1997, when Nawaz Sharif confronted the SC to save his government, he is expected to support the SC this time for punitive action against the present prime minister and/or the president.

Democracy is a joint exercise of different state institutions and the political class with an emphasis on constitutionalism, the rule of law and respect for democratic principles in letter and spirit. If one institution develops an aura of self-righteousness and adopts a unilateral approach of setting everything right, the political process will be stifled.

All the major cases currently before the superior judiciary involve specific articles of the constitution. Some of the articles like immunity to the president from initiating or continuing with any criminal proceedings (Article 248(2)) are so clear-cut one wonders why this matter should stay unresolved for such a long time. Similarly, the constitution recognises the primacy of parliament for constitutional amendments (Article 239(5), (6)), and a party office is not yet labelled as an office of profit. In the past, the heads of state and government have held the top party slot without triggering appeal to the superior judiciary. Such political issues should be settled in parliament by legislation for the separation of the two offices.

These controversies have brought Pakistan’s current democracy to the brink of collapse. The fact remains that if the present state of affairs is not changed, Pakistan may become a non-functional and non-effective state. What will the military do, whose stakes are very high in political stability, because it is addressing the triangular challenge of terrorism, India’s security pressure, and rescue and relief work for the flood-hit people? It may be hesitant to get involved in another task. However, if the situation gets out of hand with the pro and anti-government elements confronting each other, the military top brass may find it difficult to stay indifferent. Alternatively, the superior judiciary may seek the military’s cooperation.

Unless the present drift between the superior judiciary and the executive is moderated, Pakistan’s capacity to cope with its acute economic problems, the threat of terrorism and the rehabilitation of the flood-hit people will be greatly undermined.